Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 16, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
No one likes getting poked and prodded with a needle for a blood test, but it serves an important purpose. It can help a doctor get an idea of what is going on inside of you. A blood test isn’t fun, but it can reveal a whole lot about your health. It can reveal your cholesterol levels, which can be an indicator of impending heart disease. It can reveal your blood sugar levels, which can be an indicator of diabetes. It can reveal your white and red blood cell counts, which can be indicators of a whole host of diseases.
This “peak inside” through blood tests is important because there are many diseases we might have which have no outward symptoms whatsoever. Outward appearances don’t tell the whole story! There are serious conditions which can go on for a long time without any obvious, noticeable signs that we are sick.
Sin is one of those diseases. Sin is one of those conditions. Just because it isn’t obvious from outward appearances doesn’t mean we don’t have it.
This morning our gospel reading picks up where we left off last week with another excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In this section of the sermon Jesus is teaching on the Ten Commandments. In his teaching he goes beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of each of the commandments. He has harsh words and stern warnings about violating even the spirit of these commandments. What Jesus is doing here is telling his listeners, including us here today, that just because we may not sin outwardly, with blatant, obvious acts, doesn’t mean sin isn’t a problem in our lives. Jesus is telling his listeners that sin is something that is in our blood.
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder,” Jesus says, “but I say to you, if you are even angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.” Jesus goes beyond the obviously sinful behavior of murder to what is going on inside us. Jesus points to the anger inside us, the anger in our blood. Even if we never act on it, it lurks within all of us, doesn’t it?
Most people like to be seen by others as nice, kind people, and at least when it comes to outward appearances, much of the time we are. But there is often an anger that seethes just beneath the surface that we hide from others. It comes out when we think no one can see us: the rude comment made anonymously on the internet, the middle finger flashed in the anonymity of the freeway. We think no one else can see us like this, but God does. Jesus sees what is in our blood, and he calls us on it.
Jesus goes on to say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ But I tell you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again, Jesus goes beyond outward behavior to what is going on inside us, to what is in our blood. You don’t have to participate in the physical act to commit adultery. When your eyes linger on someone who is not your spouse – whether that’s at the grocery store or in a magazine or on a computer screen – you are shown to have an adulterous heart.
Could Jesus even imagine how this kind of temptation would be exacerbated by modern technology? The internet has made hardcore pornography easily accessible in every home, on every smartphone, in every room with a computer or a tablet. And along with the pervasiveness of this pornography comes a growing sense of normalization. There is an increasing belief that it is no big deal, that it is benign, that what you do with your eyes alone is no big deal. There is this belief that if skin doesn’t touch skin, it isn’t really immoral, that it isn’t really “cheating.” Well, it is a big deal. It is a cancer on our culture. It is ruining lives, particularly among young people who find it hard to have normal, non-pornographic relationships. It is destroying families. In recent years marriage counselors and divorce attorneys have both reported an enormous spike in marital problems stemming from the use of pornography.
It is no coincidence, then, that after talking about lust Jesus takes up the topic of divorce. “It was also said,” Jesus continues, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’ But I say to you, if anyone divorces his wife, except on grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
This is a sensitive, painful topic for many of you here today, but we need to understand the context. Jesus is addressing a cultural problem in his time of men (who were the only ones who could initiate a divorce in Jesus’ time) dumping their wives and picking up new ones and thinking that just because they did it legally it didn’t count as adultery. Men could cite the most frivolous reasons for dumping their wives. We actually have ancient divorce certificates that list “burned meals” as the reason for the divorce! These casual divorces almost always left the women in poverty. And many men thought that just because the law of Moses made it legal to do what they were doing that it was also moral.
There are certainly some parallels to the easy, “no fault” divorce culture of our own day. There are some parallels to the sad phenomenon in modern times of middle-aged men divorcing the middle-aged mother of their children and chasing after trophy wives. So this has much to say about the meaning of marriage yet today. But Jesus is not addressing every divorce, nor is he categorically condemning every remarriage. It is more complicated than that. While divorce is never anything to be celebrated, probably all of us know of second marriages which are a beautiful reflection of God’s intention for this holy covenant. There are several of you here today who are in such marriages.
What Jesus is doing here, again, is pointing beyond what might be considered proper outward behavior, to what is going on in one’s heart. Jesus is saying to these men who are abandoning their wives and taking up with new ones for the most frivolous reasons that their paperwork might well be in order, but their blood work shows a serious problem.
Our outward behavior matters. We shouldn’t murder anyone, or even lash out at them with verbal violence. Mistreating God’s good gift of sex by separating it from the bonds of marriage is destructive to individuals and to society, no matter how quaint or old-fashioned that sounds. Trading in your spouse for a newer model is rank wickedness, and especially harmful to children, no matter how legal it might be.
In our first reading from Deuteronomy, in what might be called Moses’ Sermon on the Mount, we are called to walk in God’s ways, to observe his commandments. God tells us there that he sets before us life and prosperity, death and adversity, life and death, blessing and curses. “Choose life,” God says. We are indeed to obey him in our outward behavior!
But no matter how well we do at obeying God outwardly, our blood work tells the real truth about us. Jesus knows what is in our hearts, our minds, our imaginations. He knows what’s in our blood. Jesus knows about our condition of sin, even if there are no obvious, visible symptoms. He knows it all, and in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, he tells us that he knows! But Jesus doesn’t just diagnose our sin. He goes on to cure it!
Jesus did much more than preach the Sermon on the Mount. As important as this sermon is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. If my discussion of his words about anger or lust or divorce caused you to shut down and stop listening – which I know happens – I plead with you to start listening again right now.
Jesus didn’t just preach this sermon. As angry men were crucifying him, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Jesus didn’t just speak out against lust. Jesus enjoyed fellowship with lots of sinners, including young men who surely couldn’t think of anything other than young women. Jesus didn’t just speak against adultery and divorce. Jesus sat and ate with prostitutes who sold to strangers what was only meant to be shared with husbands. Jesus met the woman at the well who had been married several times and was currently living with someone who was not her husband. Jesus didn’t condemn her. Instead, he offered her living water welling up to eternal life. Jesus met a woman who had been caught in adultery. He said to those who were ready to stone her to death, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When everyone left, he said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
In this sermon of his we hear today Jesus takes away any illusion we might have about justifying ourselves before God. But then he goes on to do the work of justification for us. Jesus diagnoses our sin in order to go on to reveal himself to us as our savior.
Our spiritual blood work shows us that sin is a problem for all of us, whether its symptoms are obvious or hidden. But on the cross, Jesus has taken all our sin upon himself, and in his resurrection, God has shown us that there is new life beyond our sin. Because of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection, God has shown us that our disease is not fatal! Jesus has come to bring us forgiveness and life and salvation.
He comes today to bring forgiveness and life and salvation to you, no matter what lies in your heart, or your mind, or your past. Jesus continues to eat and drink with sinners, and as we receive his own blood, shed for us for the forgiveness of sin, his blood begins to flow in us, and by his grace, we are made well.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church